Is it Marrakech or Marrakesh? Well, the former is French, the latter the common English spelling, but who cares because the real question is, what delights does this north African city have to bring back home?
The souks in Marrakech (let’s roll with the French) are an Aladdin’s cave of treasures where you could lose yourself for hours among the brass lamps, Moroccan tea sets, colourful bedspreads, chunky silver and leather goods. Okay, most of what you’ll find in this labyrinth is a mix of tourist tatt and cheap souvenirs, but still, it’s retail therapy like you’ve never experienced it before.
Expect to find dusty leather bags and belts hanging next to a legs of lamb, piles of gawdy tagine pots alongside mounds of deeply-scented spices and T-shirts with ironic slogans sold next to traditional Berber carpets.
Don’t believe the stories you might have heard of shopkeepers hassling you to buy, shopping in these little alleyways is really good fun, as long as you keep a sense of humour.
I didn’t buy loads – just a few bags, a belt, some oil, a hat, some decorative jars and…yeah, okay, I did buy quite a bit, but I loved the friendly to and froing over the price, the game, the drama, the excitement, the haggling (link to piece).
Go to the souks early in the morning, before the heat (and the smells) intensify, and make sure you’ve got plenty of room in your luggage before you go crazy.
So, what are the best buys in Marrakech?
I love this stuff, the cold-pressed version is great mixed with regular moisturiser as a body lotion and brilliant mixed with conditioner on dry hair; the warm-pressed oil is delicious in a salad dressing.
Argan oil is only produced in southern Morocco where the argan tree grows. Goats clamber up on to the branches, eat the fruit and poo out the seeds, which are gathered by the locals and crushed to make the oil. Eew, right? But also wow, because the result is the most amazing stuff. The coastal resort of Essaouira is the best place to buy it, apparently, but you can find it on sale everywhere in Marrakech too. According to my guidebook, some of the bottles of argan oil sold in the souks are poor quality, but you can also find it on sale in pharmacies and in co-operatives specialising in oils, herbs and alternative medicines.
The oil is pricey in the UK – about £15 for 100 ml – and a lot cheaper in Marrakech, but you’ll have to haggle. I bought one litre from a co-operative in the medina (old town) and got the price down from 800 Dhs to 550 (about £45), so roughly a third of the price of argan oil back home.
Argan oil makes a lovely gift, especially if you decant it into a traditional Moroccan glass bottle, which you can pick up for pennies in the souks in the medina. I paid about £1 each for these decorative glass bottles but I reckon I could have got them for less if I’d been prepared to haggle, only I was too hot to fret over such a small amount.
If you don’t get around to buying argan oil in town, it’s on sale at the airport for about 100 Dhs for 100 ml.
You HAVE to go to the tanneries (just north of the souks in the medina) to see where they treat the cow, camel and goat skins. The smell is vile but it’s a definite top 10 Marrakech experience. Then, if the site and smell of the hides being dipped in ammonia from pigeon poo doesn’t put you off a leather handbag [full disclosure: it WILL make you gag], there are plenty of shops in the area where you can buy bags, belts and suitcases. I preferred these shops to those in the souks, even though they were much more expensive, because the quality seemed better (but maybe it’s only because they weren’t covered in dust!) and their designs were more European.
One of the great things about buying leather goods in Marrakech is that you can have adjustments made on the spot, so if the strap is too long or the handle too big, they can be shortened or swapped within minutes.
Do check the quality carefully, look for scuffs and scratches and check zips before you buy and, as always when shopping in Marrakech, don’t be afraid to haggle – politeness will only lead to you being ripped off. I bought a leather handbag, a bum-bag (don’t judge, they’re practical) and a leather belt for 850Dhs (about £70) but the salesman had started at 3,500Dhs, which was insane. I could have bought the same items on the high street at home for about a third of that.
- Top tip: my Revolut card was accepted virtually everywhere in Marrakech; I used it like a debit card for purchases and withdrew cash from ATMs just like at home, without out exchange fees.
Christmas stockings are just crying out for these! Find them in the souks.
Almost every third shop in the souk sells rugs; I didn’t like any of the designs, I like neutral décor, but if you’re in the market for a colourful carpet, just remember to measure your floorspace carefully before you leave home, there’s no chance of returning it if it doesn’t fit.
I adore the brightly-coloured bed runners you see hanging in the souks, they’d add a pop of colour to any bedroom. Again, check the quality, looking closely for snags and pulls and loose threads before buying. If the sales person gives you one in a packet, don’t be afraid to open it to inspect the item closely before handing over any money – I once bought a scarf in a Dubai souk that had a ragged edge I hadn’t spotted because the salesman swapped the one I’d inspected for a different one at the till!
Specifically tagine dishes come in all sizes and colours and they’re available everywhere. Pretty, and practical too.
There’s a shop next to the well-known Kasbah Café that claims to sell 10,000 spices. I didn’t count them, but whatever you want, you can get it here. Also try the market in the main Djemaa El Fna square – or pretty much on any street.
If you like chunky silver jewellery (I don’t) you’ll be in heaven in the souks, where there are loads of shops selling necklaces, bracelets and earrings. I thought most of it looked dull and poorly made, however, I don’t have an expert eye, I buy very few trinkets, but if this is your thing, you might find a bargain.
What not to buy:
Tortoises! Seriously, I spotted a bucket-load for sale outside a shop in the medina and when I told the shopkeeper that much as I would love one, it would be impractical, on the flight and all, and he suggested I smuggle it in my suitcase. “It won’t be picked up by the x-ray machine,” he said. Maybe not but still, I don’t think a tortoise wants to be cooped up in anyone’s dirty laundry for a few hours and, besides, importing wild tortoises to the UK is illegal.